The ultimate power over nature

  • 14/10/1993

Genetically engineered products have faced a tough battle to gain acceptance by users. Public perception of biotechnology is influenced alternately by vociferous public-interest groups like Jeremy Rifkin's US-based Foundation for Economic Trends shouting foul, and public relations officers of biotechnology companies who try to assert the inherent safety of engineered products.

Little clarity and consensus has emerged on the ethics of genetic engineering, the safety of releasing transgenic plants, animals and microorganisms into the environment and on who, if anyone, should hold patent rights to new gene combinations. The confusion has been exacerbated by regulatory bodies like FDA and the US department of agriculture, which are trying to formulate guidelines for recombinant products.

Die-hard opponents of biotechnology are convinced that a great deal of it is anti-nature. They attack biotechnology, says Robert Walgate of Panos Institute in London, partly on the moral ground that it represents an unnatural and unwarranted tampering with living things and reduces animal and plant life to commodities.

The Human Genome Project, in which scientists across the world are trying to clone all genes in the human genome, has got some people worried about this knowledge being misused. Noting the recent discovery of a gene that apparently makes people more inclined towards homosexuality, an expert pointed out, "I fear that as more links are established between human behaviour and genes, such information could be used to discriminate against groups of people." Walgate echoes this view. He says, "Such knowledge will at least affect marriage and job prospects. The social and legal implications of the availability of such information will be immense."

Rifkin, who has crusaded against the use of genetically engineered bovine growth hormones in cattle to increase milk production, believes genetic engineering provides humans with the ultimate power over nature. He says, "With genetic engineering, we assume control over the hereditary blueprint of life itself. Can any reasonable person believe for a moment that such unprecedented power is without risks?"

Scientists have tried to minimise the risks involved in genetic engineering, especially in labs. As early as 1973, molecular biologists recognised the risks of the new technology and voluntarily stopped the research until 1975, when they came up with a series of guidelines to regulate physical and biological containment of genetically engineered organisms. However, where the deliberate release of genetically manipulated organisms is concerned, the debate has generated a great deal of smoke and little light.

The risks to the ecology and human health must be properly quantified before genetically manipulated organisms (GMOs) are released, say anti-biotechnologists. Such organisms are inherently more unpredictable than chemical products and can undergo genetic changes in nature, reproduce and migrate. Once released, it is virtually impossible to call these organisms back to the lab. A survey of 100 top scientists in the US, says Rifkin, acknowledges the potential benefits of biotechnology, but also warns "its imprudent or careless use can lead to irreversible, devastating damages to ecology."

Risk assessments are not so easy and there is a lack of long-term data, explains Walgate. Moreover, the risks vary for each combination of genes, making it difficult to design a standard procedure. Very little is known about the interaction between genes and organisms or between altered organisms and the environment.

Walgate stresses the need to develop appropriate national and international regulations and watchdog bodies to oversee research and production and minimise the number and consequences of biotechnical mistakes. So far, though hundreds of transgenic crops have been released for field trials, the only biotech product cleared as a food item is Calgene's Flavr Savr tomato.

The accidental release of GMOs definitely has campaigners concerned. Recently, an accident at the production plant of Novo Nordisk, Denmark's top biotechnology firm, resulted in 100 litres of liquid containing genetically engineered cell bacteria and yeast cells being discharged into the public sewage system. As yet, no charges of safety or environmental violations have been brought against Novo, but this is exactly what has concerned environmentalists and sceptics for the past 20 years.

Transgenic risks
Campaigners also worry that genes from herbicide-resistant crops will get transferred to wild weedy relatives that grow nearby, making them more resistant to herbicides. Virus-resistant plants, they say, could lead to new strains of viruses or may enable existing viruses to cause more severe diseases. New virus strains could arise from interactions between viral coat protein genes engineered into plants and other viruses. These hybrid viruses, says the National Wildlife Federation, a US-based NGO fighting against genetic engineering, may have a host range different from that of the original virus infecting the plant cell.

There is also the risk of transgenic fish from hatcheries and aquaculture farms entering waterways during floods and tornados. The effect of these organisms on aquatic communities is not known.

The long-term effects of genetically altered food on human health has also not been adequately quantified. Last year, Rifkin launched a pure-foods campaign after an FDA decision to treat genetically altered foods in the same manner as other foods and exempt them from special tests unless an allergen has been added, a toxin increased or the nutrient content altered. Rifkin has enlisted the support of chefs across the US to boycott genetically engineered food.

In Europe, particularly in Switzerland and Germany, opposition to biotech products is intense and several groups have drawn multinational companies into long legal battles. Hoechst's production plant for recombinant insulin, for instance, was delayed for more than ten years, thanks to opposing groups in Germany.

In 1991, the Swiss activist group, Basel Appeal Against Gene Technology, succeeded in dissuading Ciba-Geigy from setting up a biotech product factory in Basel and the company was forced to announce it would put up the plant across the Rhine in Huningue in France.

"The Very Angry Potatoes"
Recently, a group called "The Very Angry Potatoes" destroyed experimental sites of transgenic potatoes in the Netherlands. In August, after a six-year delay, the European Commission proposed a ban on the use of bovine growth hormone, despite an FDA ruling that the hormone does not pose a risk.

This brave new technology has not only raised the hackles of environmentalists, but has also attained a North vs South hue over the ownership of genetic resources and recombinant products developed using genes obtained from them. Several public-interest groups have also joined the fray in an attempt to protect farmers' rights against what they see as all-consuming transnational corporations.

Most biotechnology research lies in the hands of private companies. And, unlike in the South, where genetic resources are usually the source of interesting genes and are difficult to protect from bio-prospectors, recombinant products are easily patented in the North, making them available only after heavy royalties are paid.

In 1980, the first patent was given by the US Supreme Court to a genetically manipulated strain of the Pseudomonas bacterium, produced by Ananda Chakrabarty, that could break down oil slicks. Since then, patent protection has been given even for processes used in biotechnology (for example, techniques for creating recombinant DNA, an essential step in the process of isolating a gene from one source and introducing it into another).

Genetically engineered plants and animals are also routinely patented. Recently Agracetus, Inc. a subsidiary of W R Grace & Co, received a patent that covers all genetically engineered varieties of cotton. The exceptionally broad scope of coverage is unprecedented in plant biotechnology, says a recent communique of the Rural Advancement Foundation International. It gives the company control over all transgenic cotton plants till 2008.

Another corporation, the Belgium's Plant Genetics Systems (PGS), has been awarded a patent on any crop that is engineered to contain Bacillus thuringiensis genes. PGS claims it was the first to demonstrate the technique. According to them, their patent will cover maize, soya bean, rice, wheat, cotton, canola, tomato and a host of other crops. Given that many researchers across the world are working on incorporating Bt genes into several crops -- one of the hottest pursuits of the biotech industry today -- this attempt to carve out a monopoly, say members of the Barcelona-based public-interest group, Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN), should cause a worldwide row.

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